A Beginner's Guide to Using Retinol

When it comes to beauty products, self-proclaimed skincare aficionados are well aware of the much-acclaimed ingredient known as retinol. This “superhero” ingredient — as it’s often referred to in both beauty and dermatologist circles — first came to light 90 years ago when Swiss chemist Paul Karrer began to describe the chemical structure of Vitamin A.

The very first study of using retinoids was published in 1943. Retinoids and retinoic acid (more on these specific terms later) were first synthesized in 1946 by two Dutch chemists: David Adriaan van Dorp and Jozef Ferdinand Arens. Tretinoin, the retinoid that is commonly used as a prescription for acne in our times, was first used topically for skin conditions in 1958, and its use as an anti-aging treatment was first used in the 1980s. Needless to say, the science behind retinol is long and extensive. The ingredient has been well-studied and developed for almost a hundred years!

Retinol is all the rage these days because it can help zero in and heal a myriad of skin issues, from acne and acne scars, to uneven skin texture and enlarged pores, sun spots, wrinkles, and every other skin issue under the sun. This game changing ingredient also increases cell turnover to reveal new healthy skin, and it also promotes collagen and elastin production — two things we lose as we age. With an arsenal capable of targeting all that, who wouldn’t want to get in on the retinol game?

Understandably though, some people may be hesitant of using retinol for a number of reasons. For starters, people who are new to retinol can experience a host of side effects if they use it incorrectly. Secondly, it takes time for your skin to build up a tolerance to retinol. Others are also worried about possible skin thinning as as a side effect of retinol, which, by the way, happens to be a skincare myth. Nevertheless, due to the risk of side effects when using retinol, be sure to consult your doctor or a skincare specialist before using it on your skin.

When it comes to retinol, we’re here to tell you that if you’re equipped with all of the right information, you’ll be ready to up your beauty game in no time and see real results. Read on to find out everything you need to know about the beauty and power of the skincare ingredient that arguably reigns above the rest.

What is Retinol?

Let’s start with the beauty basics: so, what is retinol, really? Retinol is a derivative of Vitamin A that’s part of the retinoid family. It is commonly used as a skincare ingredient to address all sorts of skin issues like acne — including existing acne and the prevention of acne — a way to unclog pores, fight visible signs of premature aging like fine lines and the beginnings of crow’s feet around the eyes, significantly soften wrinkles, address photoaging, pigmentation problems, and much more.

How is this even possible, you might ask? The beautiful thing about retinol is that it has the ability to target skin issues such as acne, acne scars, sun spots, fine lines, and wrinkles by way of increasing your skin’s collagen production. Retinol also has the ability to stimulate the production of new blood vessels in the skin, which can significantly improve and even out skin tone. It can also soften any annoying rough patches on your skin.

Although it’s a potent ingredient, the great thing about retinol is that it doesn't require a prescription and can be used safely at home as long as it is used properly. Despite retinol being available over-the-counter, we highly recommend a consultation with a dermatologist if you’re thinking about getting into a skincare regimen that includes retinol.

It’s important to note that there are different types of retinol. In a nutshell, retinoids are broken down into four categories. These are retinyl esters, retinol, retinaldehyde, and retinoic acid. The first three are available as over-the-counter skin care products.

Tretinoin, on the other hand, is a retinoic acid that’s only available in prescription form. That’s because it is a stronger, more potent retinoid than retinol. It also shows results a lot more quickly — but again, this requires a prescription from a dermatologist. Because of its more potent formulation, tretinoin has more side effects than regular retinol, including dryness, flaking, and some visible skin peeling.

It’s especially important to note that retinol can make skin particularly sensitive to the sun, so dermatologists and skin experts normally advise using a retinol product — particularly tretinoin — as part of your nightly skincare regimen after cleansing and toning your skin.

When Should I Use Retinol?

You don’t have to wait for visible signs of aging before banking on retinol to save the day — or in this case:, years off your skin. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology even advises starting a skincare treatment regimen with retinol as early as in your 20s to slow down the aging process. As mentioned above, retinol can be great for stopping crow’s feet in its tracks and warding off fine lines and wrinkles. For some, crow’s feet can become visible as early as your mid-to-late 20s!

Who else can or should use retinol? Anyone who is concerned with any of the skin issues we mentioned above including:

    • Active acne and acne scarring - it’s important to note that acne scarring includes both pigmented spots or ice-pick scars
  • Uneven skin tone
  • Enlarged pores
  • Rough patches

  • Of course, as always, please check with your dermatologist to see if incorporating retinol is a good idea for you. If you don’t already have one, you can usually get a dermatologist referral from your family physician. Retinol is not off-limits to teenagers either — in fact, dermatologists will prescribe retinoids for teens with acne. After the acne is cleared, lower doses of retinol can also act as a preventative measure.

    Dermatologists will often advise starting off the retinol process by using a lower-strength retinol (or for significant acne, a lower dose of the more potent tretinoin) for two days a week for a few weeks, increase to every other day, and then finally to increase to every night so that your skin can build a tolerance to this active ingredient. In the first few weeks, it’s normal to see flakiness and dry patches as a side effect of using retinol. Over time, your dermatologist may also gradually prescribe higher doses of retinol if he or she feels this is right for your skin and particular skin issues.

    We can’t stress the importance of repeating that it is well advised to use any retinol products as part of your nightly skincare regimen because it does make skin a lot more sensitive to the sun.

    Benefits of Retinol

    When it comes to retinol, it’s important to remember that patience is the name of the game. While it’s certainly true that you can start to see visible results of prescription-strength retinoids such as tretinoin in a mere matter of weeks, over-the-counter retinol can take a longer amount of time. Dermatologists say that, on average, a person can expect to use retinol for at least six months to see the same kinds of results. A noticeable difference in acne can show up in 12 weeks but skin issues like sun damage and signs of aging can take more time to show visible and lasting improvement.

    But don’t let that put you off because the benefits of retinol are so worth it. Incorporate retinol into your skincare regimen and you can expect to see younger looking skin, a significant reduction in acne — if not completely — a more luminous skin tone, and that gorgeous glow that we all seek. Some doctors even prescribe retinol for warts, but again, we strongly stress the importance of getting the go-ahead from your family doctor or dermatologist before taking action, and making sure to follow their detailed instructions.

    Side Effects and Warnings of Retinol

    We’ve touched on this already but side effects associated with retinol often include the “it gets worse before it gets better” theory. Specific side effects include a tight feeling in the skin, dryness and dry patches, peeling, and even redness. Again, please note that these side effects are most prevalent in the beginning stages of incorporating retinol into your skincare routine, namely in the first few weeks. Don’t give up on retinol before giving it a real chance —

    rest assured that retinol side effects tend to naturally subside within two to four weeks as your skin acclimates to the new normal and builds resistance. You may even be lucky and not have to deal with any side effects at all, but even in this case, it is still advised to start off using retinol gradually and slowly, and of course, with a smaller dose.

    We know we’re starting to sound a lot like a broken record here, but before using retinol please make sure to consult with your medical professional, namely a dermatologist. This is especially vital if you have any medical issues or skin allergies, because the potential for more serious skin-related side effects may be worse if you have any underlying issues. It’s also well-advised to be very careful with using retinol around the delicate eye area. Your dermatologist is the best person to give specific recommendations on when and how to apply retinol, as well as how much to apply.

    Also be warned that if you overuse your retinol — whether by using too much or not spreading out your retinol nights in the first few weeks — this can lead to irritation, itching, and excessive dryness, and even the damage of skin cells. This is also true if you are using a retinol dose that is too strong for your skin. These more troublesome side effects may be the reason why retinol has been associated with skin thinning which is simply not true, emphasized by some of the country’s leading dermatologists.

    What's the Difference Between Retinol and Retinoids?

    Good question — this can be a bit confusing, but just remember that retinol is a type of retinoid from the Vitamin A family. The difference is that retinoids are often more potent, powerful prescription products, while retinol usually refers to the milder and weaker over-the-counter formulas.

    Retinol Products for Beginners

    Retinol can be an amazing game-changer if incorporated into your skincare routine under the guidance of a dermatologist or other medical professional. Retinols tend to run in serums, oils, and lightweight lotions. Here are some fabulous retinol products for beginners from Vitabox that we recommend.

    Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Oil

    Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Oil is a concentrated retinol product that is effective in its ability to ward off wrinkles — especially those deep and stubborn lines. This one is in the form of a lightweight oil that quickly penetrates the skin and even instantly gives a soft glow.

    L'Oreal Paris RevitaLift With Pure Retinol Night Serum

    This retinol serum is fabulous for fighting off the signs of aging such as those dreaded wrinkles and those who want to repair an uneven skin tone. This formula also refines pores and moisturizes skin to make it feel soft and supple.

    Formula 10.0.6 Total Wake-Up Repairing Retinol Eye Serum

    This strong but gentle retinol eye serum was especially formulated for the delicate area around the eyes. The benefits? Fine lines, including crow’s feet, are effectively diminished with continued use. This serum also improves skin elasticity and firmness around the eyes — something that happens as we age.

    Formula 10.0.6 In The Deep Nourishing Retinol Serum

    This stunning all-round formula has a skin symphony of ingredients centered around retinol such as Vitamin B3 (niacinamide), Vitamins C and E, and a host of antioxidants and ceramides designed to improve skin tone and texture, help promote circulation, and act as a skin barrier from external things like dust and the environment — all while rejuvenating with retinol.

    Elevate Your Skin Care Routine With Vitabox

    Shop for these retinol products, in addition to any other home and beauty essentials on our website, Vitabox. You’ll love seeing the results of retinol in the flesh as you get accustomed to using it in your nightly skincare ritual. Your skin will thank you!